Why E-books Are Such a Big Deal

About two years ago, James Hoge, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and Mort Rosenblum, a former editor of the International Herald Tribune, called to say that two intrepid Russian reporters—Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan—wanted to write a book telling the full story of how the Soviet-era KGB had been replaced in power and significance over the past decade by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Given the stature of these recommendations and a measure of our own due diligence, PublicAffairs contracted with the authors for a book that came to be called The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. The authors both had worked for the respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and co-founded the website Agentura.ru, which the New York Times called "a web site that came in from the cold to unveil Russian secrets." Once we had a draft in hand, PublicAffairs recruited David Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post to work with the authors to assure that the book would have the context and fluency readers of our version of the book would expect.

The book was published in mid-September. The initial reviews have been stellar. "Few people are better placed than Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan to write with authority on this subject," Edward Lucas, international editor of the Economist wrote in the Wall Street Journal, adding the book "should be essential reading for those who hold naïve hopes about Russia's development." In Britain, the Sunday Times called the book a must read, and the Guardian said "The New Nobility is not a work of Kremlinology. It is the product of two profoundly courageous Russian journalists who are meticulous about their reporting. . . . It is because they are Russian and superbly professional journalists that this book offers dozens of insights that no outsider could provide." Foreign Affairs excerpted the book in its current issue. Soldatov will visit the United States this month for sessions at the New American Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and we hope media appearances yet to be arranged.

So far, it is fair to say that the book is off to an excellent start, poised for success. But here is where the traditional method of publishing books, as it has long functioned, becomes so frustrating. PublicAffairs printed 8,010 copies of the book, and to date has shipped 4,964. The total sales in the first two weeks, according to our tracking report, are 304 copies. Most brick and mortar stores--the major chains and the independents—cannot possibly have more than two or three copies on hand, and these are unlikely to be displayed in any significant way. For all the whining about those numbers, however, the important fact to point out is that The New Nobility is available to anyone with interest in the subject, even if it admittedly is geared to an audience of finite size. Not only that, the consumer can choose from a variety of formats and price points in deciding where and how to make the purchase.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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